Clearing Sombrero Key Light with the dolphins, during our second crossing to Cuba.
‘It’ll be hellish lumpy out there, and as Bill always says, a tired decision is a bad decision, and look at the state of you two ¨You’re exhausted’. I couldn’t get a word in edgeways to mention that the decision had been made days before; that Hurricane Dorian was fading, that there was a weather window which might not open up again for weeks, and we were running out of mooring-fee money to stay. Dawn, our lovely new friend in Marathon, a fellow British citizen, was right: we had missed the bus after the long schlepp around Key West, trying to find the Customs Office to ‘clear out foreign’ with the boat. We now had 48 hours before we had to re-apply, although the whole of the Florida Keys was, it turns out, International Waters. We had missed the bus back, so were two hours behind.
OK, we’ll go get some fuel. We’ve got to go onto anchor anyway. We can’t afford another night on the mooring ball.
So we cast off the ball, and fell back away with the tide. Away to the fuel dock before it closed for the night. Towing the dinghy behind, we picked our way out through the complicated mooring field. Enough speed to keep some steerage or ‘way’. Forward motion pushes water against the rudder, allowing me to steer. But not with so much speed that we get into trouble. It’s a fine balance, considering other Boats, shoals, and a three-knot current unhelpfully behind us.
‘We’ll pull up port-side to’ I reckoned. So Dorry put the fenders out, as I drifted the boat between the narrow, battered pilings of the ruined bascule (draw) bridge of Boot Key Harbour. As we neared the fuel dock, I hoped we had enough space to spin the boat as we careered towards the red shoal marker with the current. I put the helm hard a-starboard. The new engine made the boat behave differently, as I had discovered under the gaze of the dock-master at Fort Pierce Municipal Marina, I was still getting used to her improved turning abilities. She cleared the shoals, and I brought her head back into the current, and what wind there was. Better control this way, and we crept towards the point parallel to the dock which I had imagined for a slow drift sideways to rest us gently on the fenders, wind assisting. Suddenly, we were in the lee of the Mangrove trees, and the boat felt as if she would sit off the key, just out of reach of a rope-throw. Dorry threw the bow line at my command. There is nothing for it in these situations, as they were about to close. I had no steerage with the boat not moving forward, and we would have to start the approach all over again. The third time, the increasingly surly dockmaster caught the now-sodden line. I could tell he was impatient when he yanked the boat towards the pilings as hard as he could. I ran up forward to stop the expensive stainless bow-rail from getting crumpled by ten tons of boat against an unmoving greenheart piling.
So when the boat took ages to accept the seventeen gallons we put in (a paltry amount as compared with the huge gas-guzzling tuna boats which dominate the space here), I stolidly refused to adopt the stress of keeping him an extra half-hour after closing. I didn’t tip his bad attitude, supposing a tip to be connected with good service, and that really annoyed him.
I had decided already that we would pull off the dock and make for the outside of the inlet, just to see how the swell was, under the predictions we had been receiving from NOAA (North American Weather), but his attitude cemented in my mind a growing reluctance to stay much longer in the USA. It is a very shoally and winding inlet, and I spent the time making sure not to overshoot shoal markers, and accommodate incoming day-fishers in their small craft. Keep right. Keep right, squeeze between the channel buoys…
Once clear, I turned the boat toward Sombrero Light, which would be our last outbound marker before Cuba when we decided to make the voyage. We had meant to go today, three hours ago, but I had all-but decided it was too late. If the East winds persisted, this course should constitute a beam-reach, a good point of sail for our boat.
‘180-due South’, I said to Dorry who was busy stowing away the fenders and warps for mooring. We wouldn’t need them on anchor that night. But what about tomorrow? No winds or too much for the next week, and what if the storm re-gathered? Dorry came back to the cockpit with a fender. ‘This sea is OK, isn’t it? Perfect’. It was then that my mind was made-up. If she was happy, most of my problems were solved. The big question after that was my stamina. I was exhausted.
The Iconic Sombrero Key Light, Hawk Channel, Florida Keys
‘Yup. If it’s like this when we go, I’ll be happy. I wonder how much more swell there would be outside the reef in the Straits.’ We were still inside Hawk Channel until we cleared Sombrero. It stood there, a far-off pyramid, but getting closer. It has a rating of 12 mile visibility. I looked down at the chart. The reef was deep out there. The swell we had should be pretty much the same. Tolerable. Not comfortable, throwing our boat sideways all the time, as it came from the beam, but tolerable. And once the sails were up, we’d have heeling stability.
‘I reckon this is about the swell we’ll get’, I said. Dorry nodded… ‘We could just do it!? Just carry-on. Cuba is just over there.’ I pointed ahead. ‘That’s the thing about cruising. We have our home with us. The weather is right.’
Should we just go to Sombrero to have a look? But by then, it’d be nightfall, there would be no going back. We fell silent, and, as we neared the light, which was just starting to visibly flash, I realised the decision had been made already.
‘We went for fuel, and ended-up in Cuba.’ If we went wrong, there would be little help as we got near Cuba. We were covered by TowBoat US, but they would not come anywhere near Cuban waters. However, the boat was as ready as she ever would be, and we were, apart from the fatigue, and we had seen enough summer weather to know that these weather windows were to be taken when they were there.
‘I’d better get the dinghy stowed then.’, Dorry said, and as we went up forward to lift it aboard, the Autopilot keep the boat heading out into the Caribbean Sea, past Sombrero light, and southbound one last desperate time. Eight accidental years it had taken to restore the boat and bring her to this point – ready to leave the USA, and to start going to places we really wanted to see.
We were soon to find out that the Autopilot could not handle the beam seas, that the depth sounder and compass were too dim to be seen at night, and that these beam seas were to get the better of both of our stomachs. I stayed on the helm for virtually all of the night, with better night vision than Dorry, and was treated to a beautiful moonlit beam-reach in the swells of the gulf stream. Before this, at about 11.30pm, Dorry said: ‘Look at that’, and pointed to the port bow, eastwards. There in the sky were what I can only describe as three northbound fireballs, accompanied by six or seven smaller comets. But they were not these things. They did not burn out, but stayed in the sky for three or four minutes at least. It was eery and conspiratorial. I reckoned they might be on a direct course between Guantanamo and Miami, but what were they?